I had an excellent vantage point for the presentation of Pope Francis to the world, for I was doing commentary for NBC News from a perch above St. Peter’s Square. I will confess that my initial impression was negative, not because he was a relative surprise or because he wasn't from the United States, but because, for more than a minute, he stood ramrod straight, hands at his side, and not smiling. I remember saying to his image on the TV monitor: “Do something!” Then — praise God — the new Pope spoke, and he immediately won me over.
In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh implicitly lays out a program of evangelization that has particular relevance to our time. “Brideshead” refers, of course, to a great manor house owned by a fabulously wealthy Catholic family in the England of the 1920’s. In the complex semiotic schema of Waugh’s novel, the mansion functions as a symbol of the Catholic Church, which St. Paul had referred to as the “bride of Christ.” To Brideshead comes, at the invitation of his friend Sebastian, Charles Ryder, an Oxford student, devotee of the fine arts and casual agnostic.
Like Star Wars, The Divine Comedy, and Moby Dick, J.R.R.
It was with barely concealed delight that “Chicago Sun-Times” columnist Neil Steinberg conveyed the findings of the recent Pew Forum survey that the “nones,” those who claim no particular religious affiliation, are sharply on the rise in America. Moreover, he crowed, the survey revealed that a disproportionate number of young people placed themselves firmly in the “none” camp, thus indicating that religion’s decline would only accelerate in the years to come.
Given the ruminations of Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, one might have thought that the absolute limit of scientistic arrogance had been reached. But think again. Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, was quoted in a recent news article asserting that “science” is on the verge of providing a complete understanding of the universe — an explication, it goes without saying, that precludes the antiquated notion of God altogether.
For many on the left, Paul Ryan is a menace, the very embodiment of cold, indifferent Republicanism, and for many on the right, he is a knight in shining armor, a God-fearing advocate of a principled conservatism. Mitt Romney’s choice of Ryan as running mate has already triggered the worst kind of exaggerated hoo-hah on both sides of the political debate. What is most interesting, from my perspective, is that Ryan, a devout Catholic, has claimed the social doctrine of the Church as the principal inspiration for his policies.
In the sixth chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, we find the account of Jesus sending out the Twelve, two by two, on mission. The first thing he gave them, Mark tells us, was “authority over unclean spirits.” The first pastoral act they performed was to “drive out many demons.” When I was coming of age in the 60's and 70's, it was common, even in seminaries, to dismiss such talk as primitive superstition or perhaps to modernize it and make it a literary device, using symbolic language evocative of the struggle with evil in the abstract.